Let me start with a story. It’s not my story this time, but it’s been lodged between my ears for over a week, which generally is a sign that I need to write about, sing about it, or annoy someone about it. Since I’m really tired right now, I’m just going to write about it.
Terry Pratchett wrote a story, Going Postal, about a con man, Moist Von Lipwig, who instead of dying is forcefully repositioned in life as the postmaster general of a failing post office. Seeing as how the choice was between death and government work, he chose government work. Moist’s ‘parole officer’ is a golem named Mr. Pump, who only deals with work, what’s directly in front of him, and the clarity of black and white by which every interaction is formed. That brings us to this dialogue here, which has the aforementioned stuck in head adjective:
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”shouted Moist. “You can’t just go around killing people!”
“Why Not? You Do.” The golem lowered his arm.
“What?” snapped Moist. “I do not! Who told you that?”
“I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People,” said the golem calmly.
“I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr Pump. I may be–– all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!”
“No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”
This is one of the greatest quotes in the book and a great example how amid the snark and the sarcasm, Terry Pratchett manages to teach us something.
I’m pretty sure this sticks out to me because we don’t think like that. To the contrary, First World Countries are quick to point out that “it’s my body and I’ll do what I want with it” or “It’s not bothering anyone else, so it doesn’t matter” and even “I’m alone, no one understands”. Then, just like Moist Von Lipwig, we end up doing a lot that does end up affecting a lot of people and does end up with a lot of consequences that, if we could have seen them, we might not have done that thing.
Take the internet for example. Online, a person doesn’t have to be [actual name] from [actual place] with [actual emotions]. No, the internet is a magical place where a person can assume a name, a pseudo-identity, and even an attitude that they wouldn’t otherwise have because there isn’t that direct association. We have so much that allows us to create an arena of false reality where we do not see who or what we are affecting, nor do we take the same consideration for what we say or do within those arena because it’s online, and it stays online, or is digital, therefore isn’t real.
Davad A. Bednar, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, talked about this heavily to students at BYU, and told the mournful story of a married man who proposed to a woman on a game called Second Life. The two had spent years developing an online relationship. They haven’t met in person, don’t know what the other person looks like, but they are digitally husband and wife.
Ask the IRL wife what she thinks on the matter. (To listen/watch the full devotional, click here)
Psychologist Dan Ariely also brought up this idea of the distance between action and consequence. In one study, he gave students a test to take with the promise of right answers earning money. The first group he checked the tests himself and in the second group he allowed them to check their own tests and simply tell him how many they got right. The first group got an average of 4 problems right, while the second group averaged 6.
Then he went a step further. The students could grade themselves, but then they would receive plastic tokens that would be exchanged for money, cheating went up even more.
That’s the unfortunate truth. It’s the truth because when we can see the results of our actions, there are less bad choices made. It’s unfortunate because it means that we aren’t an island. As people, no matter how much we might want isolation and to be able to do what we want without hurting someone else, it does affect others and more than we think. But it’s also wonderful because that means that there are a lot of people who are making good choices that are affecting us. We have good role models right around us, nudging us towards the right things in life in numerous small ways.